Issue 22 / 2013

“Hunting for Sounds”. Interview with Daniel Menche

Aaron Turner, Daniel Menche, Faith Coloccia

Faith Coloccia & Aaron Turner: What was your first field recording? How did you first become introduced to field recording, what equipment did you use?

Daniel Menche: I had a trusty little tape recorder in the 80s, and I would love to hike around forests here in Portland and just record forest sounds and such. As you know, in Oregon, there is mass nature everywhere. So working in forests is an endless supply of fantastic sounds. I’m not so much into city sounds, but some things are exciting to record, such as large architecture vibrating from wind or water. Usually the key elements are wind and water and how they move mass in ways that sound can be captured. I cut a hole in the side of the recorder so that I could press my thumb on the motor and warp the speed of the recording, mostly slowing it down of course, but it was a good human touch of sorts when recording live on the spot. When I made my first contact mic, I went wild with ideas and would put it on big metal bridges and such and record all the vibrations within the massive metal structures. I really liked the sound of putting contact mics on the side of resting trains. Resting, as in they are not moving but the main front car would be huffing its engine and vibrating the whole chain of cars. Those train sounds were great to record onto little cassette recorders. I then would conduct an endless amount of tape experiments, which was fun to do.

I then got a vocoder, and I thought that was fantastic to run all these crude field recordings through that vocoder and crank all the settings. I really loved that sound! Maybe too much, because my early recordings used this trick too much. You can hear a lot of this on my first CD Incineration along with many other early recordings. I loved recording loud insects and running them through the vocoder! One time I trapped some grasshoppers inside a vocal mic and let them chirp away right on the microphone element and ran that live through a distorted vocoder. Very crazy noise, and I made sure the grasshoppers were safe and happy eating grass in that microphone. My early days of music/noise making were filled with ridiculous experiments, which was rather child-like, this approach to making new sounds.

Lately, as you know, I buried a digital recorder in surround-sound recording mode deep in an anthill near your home and that sounded amazing! Also, it reminded me of how much fun it is to record sounds like this in a mischievous manner like a young person would “naturally” do, because mischief in us humans is a natural element, you know? “Working” with sounds is one thing, but I have always rather enjoyed “playing” with sounds.

You have been a longtime resident of the Portland area, and it seems you’re deeply rooted there on a personal level. At the same time, you don’t seem to place much importance on being there in terms of your work as an artist and most of your collaborators have been from the far reaches of the globe rather than your immediate vicinity (Besides Joe! [Preston – ed.]). Portland seems to be a hotspot for lots of different kinds of music at the moment; does this or anything specific about the city have any impact on what you’re doing?

I somewhat despise being nostalgic, but I can say that in the 80s, growing up here in Portland and seeing and knowing amazing punk/metal/avant-garde groups here, that there was an intense attitude to be unique and individual. This was a very serious attitude! Copying others and replicating your record collection was considered a crime! Being contrived was considered disgusting. Believe me, I wanted passionately to be front person for a thrash band or some crazy band, but no way could I do that and be myself, honestly. So I waited for it all to come to me and to become myself, so to speak. As Franz Kafka once said: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” I mean, it was true that the attitude was simply, “Be individual or don’t do anything at all.” The slogan was, “Why be something you’re not?” and that was a powerful statement, and especially for a young teenager as myself. So I have always lived in Portland and never moved or lived anywhere else, because I found a way to be active in a worldwide manner and still live here. I even live near my parents where I was raised, so I still am very close to my family and without shame. I remember my first international package coming to my parents’ house and my mom being shocked that it was from Japan. That was in 1993, and that really meant a lot to me! It was the first time anyone reached out to me for my music from anywhere outside of Portland… and hardly anyone within Portland reached out to me either. After that, I became very close with this friend from Japan (Koji Tano, R.I.P) along with many more Japanese noise artists who were greatly supportive in my work.

The funny thing about Portland is that this city never really supported me in the early days (90s). The grunge thing exploded and all people cared about in the Northwest was guitars… and more guitars. So here I am, making all this noise without guitars, and folks in my own city would just give me the big WTF in a bad, negative way. I was very annoyed with my own city of Portland and just thought to myself, “Fuck this town,” and started to get all these fantastic offers to travel to other countries and have my music released from many parts of the world. So I didn’t perform in Portland for about 4 years, because the support was zilch. Then, in 2001, Autechre asked me to open for them in Portland and I reluctantly accepted the offer, but was ready to get disappointed again. I was so wrong! It was an amazing audience and a really great show. I saw that audiences were now very open-minded and accepting. After 2001, I played continuously here in Portland and it’s been great! I have a rather bad taste in my mouth about the 90s; it wasn’t really that great of a decade here in the Northwest, contrary to what everyone may try to convince you of. But it’s true that it is indeed important to grow as an artist by befriending other artists from around the world. I really have no enemies at all, and I have the longest list of friends because of my music. To even think or imagine for a moment what my life would be without music is so odd… actually, it’s impossible to comprehend. This noise that I make has given me a world of friendship; How surreal is that?!

Do you feel as though you have communion with the self when you record or perform music? What part of yourself are you communicating with? Is it the same part of you that you commune with in nature?

I go by instinct and instinct alone. Animal instinct to be precise. Or as us humans say “gut feeling.” I’m not a faith type of person, but rather an instinct sort of way of feeling out the music. So when putting together music, I just go by an instinct of sorts, to determine if this is honest or not. I say honest, because really, I wish to stay away from this whole good vs. bad decision-making. Yes, of course there is good music and very bad music, but really, it’s a gauge of: is this “honest” music or “dishonest”? Once you approach music and art in this manner, you will certainly understand what’s honest and what’s a lie. And lying to yourself through art is deeply disgusting, as we all know already! Yet there is one more connection, and that is adrenaline. Does the music do something to the listener’s adrenaline? Does it race it up or slow it down? There’s a fine art to the sculpting of adrenaline with sound. Some people are masters at this. I don’t know if I am any good at it but I do aim for the adrenaline and how high I can raise it and how low it can go and still have adrenaline moving. And I mean this in an actual physical way. Adrenaline is a hormone in the body that triggers the mind and body. I was raised as a teen on extreme metal/hardcore, and I would gauge music by how it would make me go crazy and sweaty and such. I would judge a good metal/hardcore concert by how sore and hurt I was from thrashing all around. If my neck hurt the next day, then that was a great concert! The energy in music is what’s important. Honest energy! That raising of the emotions and how it just takes over the body is what matters. So I listen to music based upon adrenaline and the sheer physical experience. Do you remember the time when music would have the power to raise the hairs on your skin? So amazing, isn’t it? Sometimes amazing live music can almost make me faint, it’s so powerful. Music, to me, should be fully intoxicating. Some would say a religious experience, but for me, I just want the music to melt me.

We feel as though this is the heart of the matter! How important is it to you to make compositions out of everyday phenomena? Things that some people might not notice, such as the sounds of bugs in trees, or the sound a heater makes. In these, you see a compositional element. You seem to emphasize contact with the mundane world (as in reality), creating loss of identity (turning off the intellectual thinking mind) through immersive experience, taking something solid and real (field recording of a waterfall) and transmuting (recontextualizing) it through your personal process into a communal/interactive/feeling experience for the listener/observer/and potential friend.

I hunt and I gather; as simple as that. Mankind who lived off the land, for example Native American Indians, would hunt and kill an animal, and use the fur and bones and all the meat, but also create drums and amazing art from these hunted and killed animals. They also praised their gods and blessed the dead animals. Yes, they killed the animals, but they also respected those animals’ spirits. A gigantic Powwow drum is made from a moose’s skin and that drum is extremely sacred and valuable to the Native American Indians. It’s true we are all rather lost in our technological world, and all this endless technology to make music is very abundant, but there still can be an element of this “hunting and gathering” with sound, and [we can – ed.] still have great respect for that sound. Myself, I feel like an exploiter, just like all of us humans. I hunt for sound with a high-definition digital recorder or a lo-fi cheap tape recorder; that’s like killing an animal with a crude blunt club or a state-of-the-art gun with all that fancy stuff to kill the same animal. Crude kill or clean kill: it’s still a kill! But I’m talking about sound and not a living animal so my conscience is a bit lighter in this matter of exploitation. But it’s still exploitation! Sound exploitation! I remember Masami Akita (Merzbow) saying, “If music was sex, Merzbow would be pornography.” In my case, I do feel like a hunter of sorts and I kill or kidnap sound and then take it home and put a crazy costume on it and then force that sound to be a part of a grand theatrical performance. After all, I regard my music as simply dramatist sound art. Just theater with sound in all its big loud noise drama. If we treated sound as an animal, then my entire discography would be a taxidermy museum with all the stuffed animals wearing really cool costumes! In regards to the Native American Indians giving praise and respects to the hunted animal, I too make sure that my music has a grand and powerful respect to sound. I make it mighty and powerful in the most beautiful manner. For example, my album Kataract with waterfalls. I recorded these huge loud waterfalls, but I mixed and mangled them to sound as living and intense as possible. Giving it an intense level of electrified life. I hunted those waterfalls and turned them into something that only us humans can digest. Certainly no other animal would appreciate this piece of art!

How important is it to you to make friendships while making music? It seems that all your musical projects generate friendship.

Yeah, it’s true. I mean, that’s the main, core motivation in collaborating: bonding of friendship. Because after all, the real and honest reason why everyone makes music is simply “to be loved.” Hard to swallow that among the doomy black metal types, but even they make music “to be loved.” Proof in this! How about when someone writes a bad review or criticizes someone’s music and the feelings get deeply injured – why? Because the original motivation in making music was to be loved, so when the music is criticized, it’s like a friend or lover telling you are ugly. It hurts! So it is about being loved and if that’s a debate to someone, then they haven’t had enough hugs in their life. So many of the people who make noise-music do so because it’s the last and final way “to be loved,” and that is beyond what their parents or even friends can handle! So it’s a way for people to reach out to others from other parts of the world “to be loved.” When animals make noise, are they doing this to be loved? Or just to survive? But for us humans, we make art and music to be loved and that’s about it! Maybe the vanity thing is a sad side effect to all of this, but if one can just humble oneself a bit and admit to being vulnerable to hurt, then making art and music is rather pleasurable and fulfilling for one’s life! So collaborating is a bond of sorts between two or more people who simply have a shared love for sound and in the creation of something amazing musically… or not. I mean, even making crappy terrible noise is still a good friendship bonding experience, at least it should be. Who cares if it’s shitty music, if there’s a strong friendship created? What’s more important, right? Most times it creates enemies, but if the two parties have the same love for risk-taking in making music, then it’s more of a success in a stronger friendship and maybe not the music. Why do I make music? To be loved. Why do I collaborate with others? To be loved and to make some new friends from other parts of the world! So far no enemies yet, except for occasionally my own self-doubts but that’s my war.

Does mortality (or the idea or fear of mortality) play a part in your prolific music career? Do you feel as though the music you make is a stand-in for something you feel is missing in your life or in the world? Such as making something immortal or permanent by recording it and releasing records?

Well, it’s a silly belief to think for a moment that there is an immortality element in making music. People who have such a low sense of self that they feel the urge to make music thinking it will actually outlive their tiny, short lives. There’s this thing called electricity, and it will die someday, too! All electronic media will die, and that is just fine with me. I’m not in the business of claiming territory in the very mortal electronic field, but rather the personal psyche. So many people think that having a physical album in the stores with their name on it is the ultimate goal, but really, for me, it’s the direct contact with the listener’s psyche. It’s true that the reason that I allowed so many CDs to be released between 2002–2010 is because I honestly thought the CD format was going to completely die. So I kept on having CDs released, so then they could have a new life on the digital realm. It will all electronically die someday, and that makes it even more relevant to make more music: for it to die. I am very much inspired by Hagakure (a book of the Samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo). I have that book next to my work area, and I’ll read occasionally while working on music, and I like this quote a lot: “Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty. With martial valor, if one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.” Being really young in the 80s and seeing so many great hardcore punk and metal shows, I saw that the concerts were performed as though it was the last concert on earth! I loved that! The great bands were just explosive with energy as if they would die the next day. So great! That work ethic to give everything in music and performance. Sure, so much of it was extreme and noisy, but it sure did express more life than any other music at the time. So when I started making my own music, I really had the attitude that all recordings and concerts would be my first and last at the same time. I remember being 20 years old and performing for the first time with my noise, and that feeling still exists today when I perform, and then I’m always feeling that it will be my last. I always have that feeling that everything will be the last! Mortality is a great motivator! This whole belief in the immortality of anything actually inspires disgusting laziness. I like the Samurai attitude in believing that every day will be the last, and therefore you live as a warrior, as strong as possible. For myself, knowing that everything will come to an end just motivates me to go faster and stronger towards point Z. If I had any words of advice to other artists or musicians, it would be “You’re going to fucking die! So get fucking busy in living your damn life now, or never! You choose, fucker!”